91st Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Neilson Barnard

Music Sermon: Why Ya’ll Owe Queen Latifah More Credit

Queen Latifah was one of the first crossover female rap artists, who broke barriers and set standards for not just women in hip-hop, but black women in music to follow.

There’s an abundance of “queens” in the game right now. Yes, we’re all queens and wear a personal crown, I know. That aside, “Queen” is sometimes used a little loosely for artists and entertainers. I’m not going to get into whose crown is real and whose is possibly from Party City, but there’s a sovereign monarch y’all have been neglecting. Long before fan armies and hives were out here staging coronations willy-nilly, there was Queen Latifah.

An eight-year-old Dana Owens was scrolling through a book of Arabic names with her cousin when she saw the name “Latifah,” which means delicate and sensitive, and promptly decided it was for her. When she started rapping in high school, she wanted a title fitting of the name. Latifah told CNN’s Larry King, “I didn’t want to be emcee Latifah or, you know, all these different monikers that you could have put on, but I…thought, Queen, you know my mom raised me to be a queen. Queen. Queen Latifah.”

For the last 20 years of her 30-year career, however, Latifah’s been known primarily as an actress. Much like her industry contemporary Will Smith, the rap career feels long ago and far away. There’s even a segment of fans who are more familiar with her as a singer than as a rapper. In honor of Women’s History Month (and Latifah's recent investment into a housing initiative in Newark, New Jersey), this is VIBE’s Queen Latifah refresher course; a reminder that she was one of the first crossover female rap artists, who broke barriers and set standards for not just women in hip-hop, but black women in music to follow.

Wanna talk about consciousness? Latifah did that.
Singing and rapping? Yup, the first.
Feminism? From the door.
Owning her own entertainment company and label? Did it early.
Acting? Did it. Killed it.
Creating, producing and owning content? Mmhmm.
Brand partnerships? Check.
Beauty and wellness? Yup.
Body positivity and promoting self-esteem? Hello, “Queen.”
There ain’t a door she wasn’t the first or one of the first women in hip-hop to walk through.

The Princess of the Posse

She started as a member of New Jersey’s Flavor Unit, led by Mark the 45 King, a producer now best known for Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” Eminem’s “Stan,” and a cut called “The 900 Number,” Yo! MTV Raps’ Ed Lover’s signature song. The Flavor Unit was a crew of emcees and DJs similar to the Marley Marl’s Juice Crew, and Latifah was the stand out star.

Mark passed her demo to influencer-of-all-things-in-early-hip-hop, Fab 5 Freddy, who in turn passed it to signer-of-mad-acts-in-early-hip-hop Dantè Ross. Ross immediately gave her a deal with hip-hop and dance hub Tommy Boy Records.

Repping For The Ancestors

Queen Latifah took her chosen name seriously, and her entire brand reflected her title. In the same 1989 Yo! MTV Raps episode above, Freddy went shopping with Latifah, and she explained her style and homage. “By wearing African clothes, African accessories, not only am I supporting my African brothers and sisters who have these businesses, but it brings me closer to my ancestors…I just feel inner power.”
She named her backup dancers the Safari Sisters, and they sported the ancestral garb with a touch of military flair. They were in charge and ready to battle anyone who tried to test.

Latifah blended reggae, Jersey house music, jazz and other elements into her music, effortlessly switched up rhyme and flow styles, and shifted between rapping and singing, which became a trademark throughout her career. And she kicked global knowledge. Her Queendom was open to all.

Her music was inclusive, but she was also clear that she was talking to the black community first. The conversations about who can enjoy the culture have been ongoing for hip-hop’s entire existence. In one of her earliest on camera interviews, Latifah discussed who hip-hop is for, coincidentally with 3rd Bass’s DJ Serch, a white MC. “By bringing knowledge to our people, we’re bringing knowledge to every other people and letting them know how we live. That’s when (music) becomes universal. That’s where the teaching comes in. [The message is] directed to the black culture, but it’s something for everyone to learn. We have to help us grow first, and then and only then can we associate with every other race.”

Hip-hop was at the beginning of the conscious movement. A mix of Black Nationalism, Islam and Afrocentrism permeated the culture. Rappers started to address blackness, politics and social conditions in their lyrics, and gold chains and Dapper Dan fits were supplanted with African medallions, beads, and prints. Latifah’s other rap collective, The Native Tongues, was at the forefront of the shift. The Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Sheep, Monie Love, and Latifah rebranded hip-hop, used it to celebrate and uplift culture, and made it more eclectic and relatable for kids that didn’t relate to street stories or machismo rap.

Accidental Feminist

Along with her regal demeanor, Latifah always had the spirit and energy of an elder, a sage. Media outlets called her “the Aretha Franklin of rap” when she debuted, a comparison not only because of her voluptuous build with round baby face, but because of the power and declaration in her voice and message. Over time, she earned the moniker First Lady of Hip-Hop. The Native Tongues called her “Mama Zulu” (a reference to the Universal Zulu Nation collective) even though she was still a teenager.

Latifah always represented equality and power for women. She and peers MC Lyte, Roxanne Shantè, Ms. Melodie and Salt-N-Pepa were fighting for position and respect. Hip-hop is born of the streets; it’s about boasting and braggadocio. There’s a reason why, 30 years after Lyte was the first female rapper to release a full-length album, the field still isn’t level. But from the moment the ladies hit the scene late ‘80s, stepping into a landscape dominated by LL Cool J, Public Enemy and NWA, Latifah and her peers came to play.

Like her self-ascribed Queen descriptor, Latifah’s albums announced the power and strength of black women with titles like All Hail the Queen, Nature of a Sista’ and Black Reign. She rapped about agency, visibility, confidence, self-reliance, and about not letting men play women short. I consider All Hail the Queen is the definitive Latifah album, and “Ladies First” is her definitive song.

Latifah and Monie Love were fast friends from the moment they met in 1987, and Latifah pitched the idea for the perfect collaboration. “She said she wanted to do something that was uplifting for women because it's a male-dominated industry and hip-hop is full of male acts. [Women rappers] do exist but we're few and far between.” Monie told Billboard. "She said, 'I want to do something that's going to empower women and shake the guys up a little bit. I want to call it ‘Ladies First’ because when a guy and a woman walk through the door, it's supposed to be ladies first.' So we built the song around that idea…We had no idea it was going to go down in history as this great woman empowerment song in hip-hop.”

The track was also a milestone moment for women in hip-hop. It was the first collaborative track with two female MCs who weren’t part of a group – and without a man on the joint hogging the light. The vision was originally for three; Latifah asked Lyte to join, but people convinced her it wasn’t a smart move, so she declined. It’s a decision Lyte still regrets. (Me too, because that would have been fire!) Latifah and Monie brought high spirited, high energy banter back and forth as they hyped each other up. Imagine, “Yes, BARS!!” but over a beat.

“Some think that we can't flow (can't flow)
Stereotypes, they got to go (got to go)
I'm a mess around and flip the scene into reverse
(With what?) With a little touch of ‘Ladies First’”

Latifah didn’t realize her ideology and message aligned with feminism. “(‘Ladies First’) is to tell ladies as well as men that we’re coming up, we’re standing proud and strong, and we won’t be impeded by anything,” she said in an early interview. “It’s not a feminist-type thing, ‘cause I’d never call myself a feminist. It’s just telling (women) they have to have more respect for themselves in an age where they are so exploited.” Okay, so feminism with a dash of fauxtep in the beginning. But still feminism. She became the rap mama you don’t want to show out around because you know she’s going to be disappointed (you could get loose with your rap aunties Salt-n-Pepa, though).

As hip-hop grew, the cultural misogyny grew with it. The Queen continued to serve in a mother/big sister role even to the artists in Flavor Unit, which she was then leading. She had a lyrical come-to-Jesus-meeting for black men and women about name calling, street harassment, and a lack of mutual respect. If Latifah is hip-hop’s Aretha, “U.N.I.T.Y” is her “Respect.”

The anthem is still her biggest single to date, and her signature song (along with “Ladies First”). It won the Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1995, right behind Lyte’s win for “Ruffneck” in 1994.

On the few occasions opportunity presented to gather a master class of female rappers, the Queen was always on the short list.

The Vanguard of Hip-Hop In Hollywood

Queen Latifah was one of the first rappers, along with Will Smith, Ice T and Ice Cube, to make a successful leap to the screen. In ‘90, she began landing guest spots and small roles in Juice, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Jungle Fever. She was good, easy, natural. But that was due in part to the characters falling on a Queen Latifah spectrum, not that far removed from her artist persona. Just tweaked a little.

When Living Single debuted in 1993, Latifah the rapper started moving aside for Latifah the actress. The ensemble comedy about young, upwardly mobile black friends in Brooklyn was a smash hit, and part of a new era in TV programming targeting the hip-hop generation. No-nonsense but loveable Khadijah James showcased Latifah’s ease and comedic timing.

Like her smaller roles, though, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine Khadajah as the woman Latifah would have been if she’d pursued journalism instead of rapping. Living Single was so successful (it inspired one of the defining mainstream sitcoms of the decade, Friends), Latifah was at risk of losing her rap cred. Hip-hop was still a couple of years away from celebrating and embracing crossover success. With her second album, she addressed anyone who had doubts.

Her cameo looks plus the starring role in a hit series solidified the Queen as a rapper who could also act. Then, she went to an alternative universe where the Living Single crew decided to rob banks: the all-women caper movie Set It Off. From that moment, she was an actress, who also rapped. The brash, gangsta Cleo was unlike anything we’d seen Latifah embody. Not in her music, not in her acting, and not in her personal life as the sister and daughter of police officers. Of no small consequence, Cleo was gay. “Gay, gay, gay” as Latifah herself described. On-camera, not simply implied.

“There’s a lot of stuff people will question about my character,” she told the LA Times around the movie’s release. “I needed to be somebody else to show the world that I had this gift – something I can’t do if I play Queen Latifah roles all of the time. I wanted to make a statement with a character who’s really quite opposite of who I really am, and establish a different voice.”

After Set It Off, there were no more small roles for the Queen. In her career to date, Latifah has starred in more than 30 feature films, including her Oscar-nominated turn as Mama Morton in Chicago - the only female rapper to be nominated in an acting or non-acting category. In addition to starring in Living Single, her Flavor Unit Entertainment has also produced multiple TV shows, she’s starred in and co-produced critically acclaimed TV movies including HBO’s Bessie (for which she won a SAG award), and hosted a daytime TV show. Over 20 years after Living Single and Set It Off, Latifah proved she’s also still relatable as the around-the-way homegirl with the 2017 box office phenomenon Girl’s Trip.

Multimedia Mogul

A few years into her career, Latifah began an evolution from rapper to business (not a “business woman” but a “business”…you know the rest). After Mark the 45 King developed a serious drug habit that threatened Flavor Unit, Latifah and partner Shakim Compere took over the brand. “She was the one who became the most successful. She had the finances to incorporate the name and to build a brand around it,” former crew member Lakim Shabazz explained to Red Bull Music Academy. “We sat down as a unit and discussed this, and everyone came to the agreement that it was okay for her to do that. So she incorporated the name and they got Flavor Unit Management, and eventually they built the label and the movie company.”

Flavor Unit Management continued to represent some of the original crew like “Gangsta B*tch” rapper Apache, took on Naughty by Nature, and at various points managed OutKast, LL Cool J, Monica, Faith Evans, Total, SWV, Groove Theory, Monifah, Gina Thompson, Donell Jones and Zhané. In between her second and third albums, Latifah left Tommy Boy for Motown Records and her own Flavor Unit Records imprint. By 1993, she was the head of her own management company and label. In 1995, they branched into film and television production.

Flavor Unit Entertainment has produced several of Latiah’s film vehicles including Beauty Shop, Just Wright, Last Holiday and Bessie; and TV shows including VH1’s Single Ladies (which I’m not ashamed to say I miss). The company had brokered content deals with Centric/BETHer and Netflix in recent years for new projects. Latifah’s busy.

The Queen has been an example for entertainers-turned entrepreneurs. MC Lyte celebrated her hustle and acumen in an open letter for Billboard, “My sister, the Queen, has single-handedly changed the way every female MC looks at their business and perhaps more importantly, has no doubt changed the way the world views female MCs and their business potential.”

All That Jazz

With success comes freedom to explore and push boundaries. Latifah sang at church and at school before she started rapping, and once her career was secure, she allowed herself room to be a vocalist. She started with her acting roles, first as a jazz singer in the 1998 movie Live Out Loud.

It’s worth noting that “Lush Life” is not an easy song to sing. Sinatra left it off an album after finding it too difficult. Latifah isn’t just a hold a melody singer. She’s a forreal singer.

Four years later, she dived head first into a full-out musical playing Mama. I mentioned she was nominated for an Oscar, right?

In 2004, she released The Dana Owens Album, a collection of jazz and soul standards. The album was a fair commercial success; it cracked the top 20 of the Billboard Top 200 and almost hit the top 10 of the R&B albums chart. It also garnered a Grammy Nomination for Best Jazz Vocal. She stuck with jazz for her following album, 2007’s Travelin’ Light. This time, the LP spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz albums chart and garnered an additional Grammy nomination, for Best Traditional Pop Vocal (which is the same category Tony Bennett wins pretty much annually).

If you go see Latifah perform today, just know there’s gonna be a jazz set. Come like 30 minutes late if you’re just trying to see Queen Latifah and not Dana Owens.

I can’t think of any other hip-hop artist who completely switched up genres. This isn’t even in the same vein as Lauryn being an R&B singer. This is like Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson playing two fundamentally different sports on a professional level.

Easy, Breezy, Beautiful Cover Queen

Latifah continued to prove her versatility by becoming a spokesperson for cosmetic giant CoverGirl in 2001, laying a foundation for brand ambassadors Janelle Monàe and Issa Rae to come later. In 2006, she became the brand’s first spokesperson to create their own line of products, launching the Queen Collection for women of color.

For years, the mainstream beauty industry has ignored the needs of darker-hued women, enough so that the array of shades available in Rihanna’s Fenty line was disruptive - in 2017. Latifah was proud of her representation as a CoverGirl, then an encounter with a fan convinced her the line was necessary. “The woman came up to me and was like, ‘I’m so happy for you and CoverGirl. I love that, but I wish y'all made a shade in my complexion.’ When she said that, it didn’t go past me, it stuck with me,” she told Essence. “I [thought], ‘okay, let’s go make a shade in your complexion’. I thought why am I CoverGirl if we can’t get our different shades?”

The Queen Collection is still one of CoverGirl’s best-selling lines, and one of the most popular makeup lines for women of color.

She may have done away with her trademark crown hat - she said people made too much of it, and anyone who’s been “Peace, Queen”ed excessively can probably relate – but Latifah has never been dethroned. She has consistently checked boxes and hit new benchmarks since her career began, although she’s said that wasn’t her goal.

“The goal was just to make a record, and then the goal was to do a TV show,” Latifah told Ebony magazine in 2007, “and then the goal was to make movies, and then to produce movies and produce records.” Whether intentional, guided by grace, or just by luck plus perseverance, however, Dana Owens has become one of the biggest stars not just in music, but period. She is universally respected and loved. The Queen still reigns, and we are merely her subjects.

#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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Melyssa Ford

TV/Radio Host Melyssa Ford Pens Moving Essay: "My Mother Died During This Pandemic And I Have No Where To Put My Grief."

[Editor's Note: In a heartwarming tribute, former model now TV/Radio host, Melyssa Ford details the final days she shared with her beloved mother, Oksana Barbara Raisa Ford (10/12/1950 - 5/19/2020). Understanding that we have all been connected to Covid-19's tragic reach, this essay explains the plight of one person's experience that represents the pain so many are dealing with in these times around the world.]

 

Covid effing 19. This Pandemic has been a moment of reckoning for a great many of us. How many of you have been confronted with the hard truth that we took EVERYTHING about our lives and freedoms for granted? The freedom to call up a few friends and go for Happy Hour drinks after a long day at work? The freedom to start our day by going to the gym; the freedom to temporarily vacate our lives by getting on a plane and heading off to some tropical destination? Or the freedom to gather at a burial or memorial service to pay love and respect to a loved one who has passed, as a means of helping to process our own grief? 

My mother died last week. Not from Covid-19, but from colon cancer. But Covid-19 and it’s endless complications directly affected my family’s lives and, ultimately, my mother's death. 

It was less than a year from diagnosis to her last days. She lived in Toronto (my hometown) and I currently live in Los Angeles. Traveling during this pandemic presented some incredible challenges. Quarantine and shelter in place rules. Closed international borders. Fear and uncertainty. I was terrified that I wouldn’t get to her side in time, since Canada mandates that anyone getting off a plane has to self quarantine for 14 days (threats of fines and jail time were there to incentivize you to adhere to the new rules). And I knew my mother had very little precious time. 

Months before, when there was still some hope that surgery and chemo would prolong her life, she decided to sell the house I grew up in. I was furious. I looked at this as her giving up; resigning herself to the control of this insidious disease called Cancer. But my mother, the truest form of pragmatist, was preparing for the inevitable and getting her affairs in order. She wanted to leave me with nothing to do except mourn her without the burden of packing up a home with all of her belongings in it after her death. She knows me so well, she knew I’d NEVER pack it up, that I’d have left everything the way it was as a shrine to her. And therefore, never really moving through my grief in a purposeful and healthy manner. 

Cancer ravaged my mother's body but left her brain fully intact. And it was with full cognition, pragmatism and a whole lot of gumption, that she decided to end things on her terms by scheduling her passing with a doctor's assistance (MAID: Medical Assistance in Dying is a legal policy in Canada when a patient who is terminal and in palliative care, with days or weeks remaining in their lives). 

She didn’t want to spend her last months laying confined to a bed, immobile, unable to even take herself to the bathroom. The most basic form of human dignity had been stolen from her and replaced with a catheter and a colostomy bag that my aunt had to drain several times a day. I watched as her skin turned yellow from Jaundice, signaling her liver was failing. I watched as her urine went from a dark yellow to crimson, a signal that her kidneys were no longer functional. My mother, the strongest person I had ever known, both physically and mentally, was now frail and seemingly melting into the bed, her skin sagging from her skeletal arms and legs. Her face was gaunt, her head bald, her breastplate visible and bony...in her last days she was an empty shell of the 5’10” beautiful viking she had been. With her long blond hair, green eyes and imposing physical stature, I used to joke that if you gave her a hat with horns, a shield and a sword, you could send her out to battle. 

The day I arrived in Toronto from L.A.I approached my mother’s bedside after going through a rigorous disinfectant routine. My mother had been discharged from the hospital as there was nothing left to do for her medically except keep her as comfortable as possible. She was sent home to my aunt’s house for the remainder of her days. My aunt’s home was a place of comfort and joy for me, as I’ve spent a great many holidays and family occasions here; this was the best place for my mother to be. With a mask and gloves on, I sat down next to her bedside and tried with all my might not to cry. My Mom had passed on that British “stiff upper lip” mentality to me, it’s rare you will see me expose my emotions. But as of late, I’ve been pretty transparent about it, in an attempt to sort through my competing feelings of grief and guilt. Guilt at not having been the perfect daughter. Grief at being her only child with no one to share the burden of immeasurable sadness with. Guilt at not working on our relationship or attempting to understand her as a person until it was close to the end. Guilt and grief kept coming in waves, threatening to drown me. 

On that first evening, I sat with her for a few hours and we talked more frankly than we ever had about things I had always been scared to ask. Topics such as her tumultuous marriage to my father and why she stayed in such misery? What was HER mother like, who died when my mother was only 15 years old; was she proud of me and the choices I had made in my life, one of them being never having children?

Eventually I had to let her sleep. I went upstairs to her bedroom (she was now in a bedroom on the main floor of my aunt’s house since she could no longer walk). Once in her room, I found a journal entitled 2019 and began to read. What I read, in between all of the activities she enjoyed such as Aquafit and her book club, was her documenting her disease before she even knew she had it, describing the symptoms that began as uncomfortable that would soon become excruciatingly painful. 

It broke my heart to read this, being on the other side of understanding where this story would end. I found myself wanting to move through the dimension of time and yell, “Go to the hospital!” Reading this only made me wonder, if she had caught it during the early days of symptoms, would the outcome be different??? Excuse me as I add more guilt and more grief to the already unbearable weight upon my shoulders. 

Our final day was spent much like the six days I had with my mother prior, laying beside each other in bed, massaging her and either watching movies or talking. We would go from walking down memory lane as I showed her old pictures to discussing last minute details about the Business of Death: the transfer of everything into my name, where certain sentimental pieces of jewelry could be found, who she wanted to receive small tokens of remembrance of her. As sad as I was for myself, my heart broke for my mother. She’s losing EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE. She expressed to me that she was shocked at how quickly her cancer spread throughout her body. It didn’t give her a chance. No amount of holistic remedies or prayers would have changed this (thanks to all my friends who suggested a plant based diet with sea moss, soursop and bladderwrack but her colon, GI tract and bowels had been decimated). 

The few days leading up to her doctor assisted euthanasia I found my heart racing in panic that the end was creeping closer and closer. I don’t know what’s worse, a loved one's death being a surprise or knowing when it’s going to happen and the hours counting down. I know both intimately. My father went the first way, my mother the second. I still can’t tell you the answer.

With plans in place for the funeral home to come and claim my mother's body in order to cremate her, I’m left with a feeling of such remorse and sadness that, because of Covid 19, my mother’s friends and I are being robbed of the opportunity to congregate at a memorial service to properly mourn and pay homage and respect to the woman we all loved and admired. My mother deserved that.

I’m so angry. I’m angry at Cancer. I’m angry at, as a society, our collective circumstances. I’m angry at the thought that this pandemic could have been controlled if our government officials had reacted swiftly. I’m angry that there are so many people who are experiencing the same thing I am, the death of loved ones and the inability to gather together to have a ceremony that celebrates their lives and sends them off properly.

Trauma changes you. Less than two years ago I almost died when a truck hit my Jeep on a California highway. I spent almost a year recovering. I’m a different person than I was moments before the impact of that crash. And now I’ve got to sort out who I am without my mother on this earth. People report a feeling of disconnectedness after the death of their parent(s); like what kept you tethered to the earth is gone and you are now hurtling through time and space, searching for something to grab onto.

I lost my father many years ago and now my mom is gone. I’m praying that I find something soon to ground me; but for the time being, the search to make sense and meaning of my mother's life and, ultimately her death, shall continue for me, like a room with endless doors or a road that disappears into the horizon. 

 

A native of Toronto, Canada and now residing in Beverly Hills, California, Melyssa Ford is a syndicated radio show host on Hollywood Unlocked via iHeart Media's stations nationwide and also hosts her own podcast, I'm Here For The Food (available on all streaming platforms).

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Beenie Man (L) and Bounty Killer (R) in 1995.
David Corio/Redferns

A Look At Beenie Man And Bounty Killer's 'Verzuz' Battle Scorecard

Why was this night different from all other Verzuz battles? Streamed live from Kingston, Jamaica, the Memorial Day “Soundclash Edition” of Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s flagship IG Live series was easily the most exciting and entertaining yet, as well as the first to delve into dancehall reggae.

Considering the fact that Jamaican sound systems pioneered the sort of “beat battles” have made Verzuz a social media sensation well over half a century ago, the creative decision was more than fitting. By pitting two icons of the genre, Bounty Killer and Beenie Man, in head-to-head competition, this Verzuz battle did not just showcase two of its most respected lyricists ever to hold a microphone, it also tapped into an epic rivalry that stretches back more than a quarter of a century.

At that time the youth born Moses Davis in the Waterhouse section of downtown Kingston was already on the second leg of his career -- having released his first album a decade earlier at the age of ten. Young Rodney Price, formerly known as Bounty Hunter, had just started to make noise under his new artist name Bounty Killer, recording hardcore hits for the legendary Waterhouse-based producer Lloyd “King Jammy” James.

Like all young aspiring artists, Killer had looked up to Beenie as an inspirational figure -- until he felt that the artist had borrowed his style. Beenie and Bounty’s face-to-face clashes, especially their Boxing Day battles at the storied Jamaican stage show Sting in 1993 and 1995, are the stuff of dancehall legend. Despite whatever differences may have existed between them, both artists channeled all that energy into great records -- many of which were played in the heat of the Verzuz battle.

Arguably the most exciting and spontaneous edition of Verzuz yet, the Beenie and Bounty battle was not a “clash” in the traditional Jamaican sense, but it was hardly a conventional beat battle either. Predictions that the island’s WiFi might not be able to handle the strain were soon dismissed -- in keeping with Jamaica’s long tradition of raising the bar when it comes to using technology to create next-level musical entertainment, this was the best-produced beat battle of them all. On the other hand, this was also the first time a Verzuz competitor has had to take a break in the action to negotiate with police officers.

This was surely also the first Verzuz battle to be live-tweeted by a prime minister: PM Andrew Holness took to his official Twitter to declare “Jamaica’s culture is global” and share a screenshot of the action. In keeping with the national pride, the battle opened with a rousing rendition of the Jamaican National Anthem.

When Beenie and Bounty came through VIBE’s IG Live one day before performance, they both declared that they would not be preparing for the battle as the art of war should be spontaneous. This has had people on tender hooks as no one really knows what would happen on the night. But of course all celebrities were out in full force for this highly anticipated battle, as everyone from Diddy to Swizz to Rihanna came through to catch the vibes. It was the only place to be if you were on IG, with more than 400K people checking in at the event's peak.

Here’s Billboard's tune-for-tune breakdown from the top to the very last drop.

ROUND 1: Beenie Man's “Matie” vs. Special Ed feat. Bounty Killer's “Just a Killa”

Beenie kicked things off with his first No. 1 hit (on the Jamaican charts) in honor of the late great Bobby Digital, the legendary producer of this song and countless more, who passed away May 21. Bounty opted to open on an international note, leading with his first hip hop collaboration, a 1995 single by Brooklyn rapper Special Ed featuring a guest verse from young Bounty.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 2: Beenie Man's “Memories” vs. Bounty Killer's “Suspense”

Sticking with the hardcore dancehall, Beenie reached for one of his fan favorites, a mid-’90s banger on the “Hot Wax” riddim that was recorded during the height of his great lyrical war with Bounty Killer (and sampled by Drake on the album version of “Controlla”). Killer responded in kind with a track on the same hard-hitting riddim, making this round feel like a flashback mid-'90s dancehall session.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 3: Beenie Man's “Slam” vs. Bounty Killer's “Living Dangerously”

Shifting into another gear, Beenie drew for his first Billboard hit, a tribute to the sexual prowess of “ghetto girls” recorded on Dave Kelly’s irresistible “Arab Attack” riddim. Bounty responded with one of his most popular songs for the ladies, a collaboration with reggae vocalist par excellence Barrington Levy. Counteracting a classic with another classic, this round was too close to call.

WINNER: Tie

ROUND 4: Beenie Man feat. Chevelle Franklin's “Dancehall Queen” vs. Diana King feat. Bounty Killer's “Summer Breezin’”

Keeping the energy high, Beenie unleashed this soundtrack cut from the movie Dancehall Queen (in which he also appeared). Bounty responded with a relatively obscure guest verse on a record by Jamaican pop hitmaker Diana King.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 5: Beenie Man feat. Lil Kim's “Fresh From Yard” vs. Bounty Killer ft. Jeru the Damaja's “Suicide or Murder”

For his first international selection, Beenie chose a DJ Clue production featuring the Queen Bee in her best Brooklyn Jamaican patois mode. Killer kept it BK with a grimy Jeru collab produced by New York’s own Massive B productions.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 6: T.I. feat. Beenie Man's “I’m Serious” vs. Bounty Killer ft. Mobb Deep's “Deadly Zone”

Sticking with the hip hop collabs, Beenie dropped T.I.’s first major-label single featuring a hard-as-nails Neptunes beat and a street-certified Beenie Man hook. But he should have known that badman business is the Killer’s wheelhouse. Bounty clapped back with a grimy Mobb Deep collab off his My Xperience album and took the round.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 7: Guerilla Black feat. Beenie Man's “Compton” vs. Bounty Killer feat. The Fugees' "Hip-Hopera”

Beenie dropped his third straight hip hop crossover track, this one a guest verse for Biggie soundalike Guerilla Black over a bouncy Stalag Riddim. Bounty brought out the big guns, returning fire with a Fugees collab. As the Warlord would say, “People dead!”

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 8: Beenie Man's “Romie” vs. Bounty Killer's “Worthless Bwoy”

Returning to straight-up dancehall, Beenie served up one of his worldwide club classics, a song about a girl named “Romie” set to Shocking Vibes’s hard-driving version of the Punany Riddim. Killer replied with a Dave Kelly banger burning out the guys who lack the stamina to satisfy their significant others.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 9: Beenie Man “Old Dog” vs. Bounty Killer “Stucky”

Beenie Man has plenty of classic dancehall joints, and this Dave Kelly sure shot is one of the most ubiquitous. “Old Dog” recounts his exploits with the opposite sex, shouting out female dancehall stars Patra and Lady Saw along the way. Bounty replied in kind with his own kind of “gyal tune,” more rough than sweet, just the way Killer likes it.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 10: Beenie Man feat. Mya “Girls Them Sugar” vs. Bounty Killer ft. Nona Hendryx & Cocoa Brovaz “It’s a Party”

Beenie closed out the first half of the battle on a strong note with one of his most beautiful records, a Neptunes remake of one of his immortal dancehall classics adorned with a sweet hook sung by Mya. Bounty’s response was strong, but the Wyclef-produced party joint (with a hook by the former member of Labelle and bars from Boot Camp MCs) fell just short of Beenie’s selection.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 11: Beenie Man feat. Wyclef Jean's “Love Me Now” vs. Bounty Killer feat. Swizz Beatz' “Guilty”

Flipping catchy lyrics over Naughty By Nature's classic “O.P.P.” beat, Beenie sounded strong on this Wyclef collab, but Bounty countered with a hard-hitting Swizz Beatz track featuring a blazing guest verse from the Killer.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 12: Beenie Man feat. Barrington Levy's “Murderation” vs. Bounty Killer's “Look”

The vibes were sweet right up until the moment when officers of the Jamaican Constabulary Force interrupted the action. Beenie took care of the situation, informing the police that there were hundreds of thousands of people watching internationally. He then asked his DJ to run one of the hardest tracks in his catalog, a song about the abuse of authority in the ghetto streets. It was such a perfect segue the whole thing almost seemed planned. Killer had no choice but to counter with one of the most powerful songs in his catalogue, another Dave Kelly masterpiece, just barely winning what was arguably the strongest round of the entire battle.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 13: Beenie Man's [Showtime Juggling] vs. Bounty Killer's “Fed Up”

Still charged up by the unexpected visit from the police, Beenie felt a vibe and decided to perform his next song live. Starting out with “Hypocrite,” a blistering broadside against haters on Dave Kelly’s “Showtime” riddim, Beenie’s performance inspired Bounty to join in for what became a multi-song medley that included snippets of Killer’s “Eagle & The Hawk” and “Bullet Proof Skin” as well as Beenie Man’s “Done Have We Things,” “Badman Medley,” “Bury Yuh Dead,” and “Fire Burn.”

After they wrapped up their explosive tag-team performance, Beenie calmly stated “My song dat,” indicating that he wanted the whole extended set to count as one song. Bounty retaliated with “Fed Up,” one of his signature reality tunes that cemented his reputation as Jamaica’s “Poor People Governor.” Another close round, and highly unorthodox. Advantage Killa.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 14: Beenie Man's “World Dance” vs. Bounty Killer's “Gal” 

Beenie Man took it back with one of his biggest early hits, a “buss the dance” selection on Shocking Vibes’ Cordy Roy Riddim. Killer’s response was another hardcore tune for the girls, explosively energetic and lyrically intricate.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 15: Beenie Man's “Modeling” vs. Bounty Killer's “Model”

Taking it back to the early days of his career, Beenie served up a song designed to inspire all the “bashment girls” in the dance to show off their freshest outfits and dance moves. Killer responded in kind with a similar type of song, every bit as lyrically precise as Beenie’s was melodic, making this round a dead heat.

WINNER: Tie

ROUND 16: Beenie Man's “Oyster & Conch” vs. Bounty Killer's “Benz & Bimma”

Sticking with the “gyal” segment, dancehall’s “Doctor” prescribed a musical aphrodisiac, stressing the importance of seafood in your diet. Killer responded with a dancehall smash likening his appreciation of the female physique to his fondness for expensive European automobiles.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 17: Beenie Man's “Dude” vs. Bounty Killer's “Greatest”

Beenie delivered yet another Dave Kelly sureshot, this time on the festive Fiesta Riddim. Killer responded with a little-known 2003 track on the “Hydro” radio, basically conceding this round.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 18: Beenie Man's “Mm-Hmm” vs. Bounty Killer feat. Cham's “Another Level”

As the battle neared its final rounds, Beenie played this hard-hitting Tony Kelly production and grabbed the mic to chat his lyrics live and direct, showing that dancehall artists of a certain age are still in top form lyrically. Bounty replied with a musical killshot on Dave Kelly’s Clone Riddim, joining forces with Cham to take things to “Another Level.” Feeling the spirit, Beenie grabbed the mic and spit a verse over Bounty’s record.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 19: Beenie Man “Nuff Gal” vs. Bounty Killer “Cry For Die For”

Beenie changed up the pace with a jazzy tune for the ladies featuring a swinging horn section. This 1996 Jamaican single could have been a bigger hit for Beenie if it had the right promotion, and still sounds great all these years later. Bounty Killer responded in similarly eclectic mode with a jaunty track on a Riddim based on The Champs' 1950s rock chart-topper “Tequila.”

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 20: Beenie Man's “I’m Drinkin’ (Rum and Red Bull)” vs. Bounty Killer's “Smoke the Herb”

Beenie closed out his regulation 20 rounds with one of his biggest crossover hits, a collaboration with Fambo that somebody at Red Bull should probably sign up for an endorsement deal. Bounty Killer responded with perhaps his greatest ganja anthems. This one was too close to call. Pick your poison.

WINNER: Tie

EXTRA TUNES

After running a couple of exclusive dubplate specials -- “War Uno Want” by Bounty Killer and a Buju Banton and Beenie Man collab on the M.P.L.A Riddim -- Beenie and Bounty served one final tune. ”Why Beenie saved one of his signature songs, 2004's "King of the Dancehall," for the 21st round is anybody’s guess. Bounty’s response ("Nuh Fren Fish") was something for the hardcore fans only.

Winner: Beenie

BONUS ROUNDS

Wider Catalogue: Beenie Man

While both artists did a good job displaying the breadth of their respective repertoires, blending hardcore dancehall hits with international collaborations, Beenie Man showed off his versatility with a mixture of old and new dancehall hits as well as mixing moods and tempos.

Biggest Snub: Beenie Man (Point to Bounty Killer)

Beenie Man opted not to play “Who Am I” (aka “Sim Simma,”) perhaps his best known international hit. Not to be outdone, Bounty Killer also neglected to play “Hey Baby,” his high-profile collaboration with No Doubt from their Grammy-winning 2001 album Rock Steady. Still Beenie’s oversight was the more inexplicable of the two.

Best Banter: Beenie Man

When police stopped by in the middle of the session and Beenie Man somehow kept his cool telling them “Officer, the whole world is watching… do we have to do this right now? Do you really wanna be that guy?”

Biggest KO: Bounty Killer

Not long after the police stopped by, Beenie and Bounty joined in on an eight song freestyle, venting their frustration at the police. But Bounty’s response, “Poor People Fed Up,” trumped an extended live performance, demonstrating just how much of a punch that song still packs.

People's Champ: Bounty Killer

While Beenie proved the more strategic selector, Bounty Killer’s off-the-cuff adlibs an manic energy -- especially when he noticed Rihanna in the IG audience -- kept the mood up. Even when he played unexpected selections, the Warlord’s respect levels were on 11.

FINAL SCORE: 13-10-3, Beenie Man

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This article originally appeared on Billboard.

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Jonathan Mannion

Iconic Photographer, Jonathan Mannion, Details Shooting Eminem's 'Marshall Mathers LP' 20 Years Later

This story, in its entirety, is posted on Billboard.com and is written by Carl Lamarre.

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Saturday (May 23) marks the 20th anniversary of Eminem's third album, The Marshall Mathers LP. His magnum opus not only shattered records on the Billboard 200 (debuted at No. 1 with a whopping 1.78 million copies its opening week) but highlighted his abilities as a raw and gifted storyteller. With Em looking to shed light on his real-life persona of Marshall Mathers, he hired famed photographer Jonathan Mannion to help capture his vision.

Mannion, who previously shot legendary album covers such as Jay-Z's 1996 Reasonable Doubt and DMX's 1998 Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, relished the task of teaming up with one of rap's polarizing acts because of their commonalities. Like Eminem, Mannion was a young, hungry creative from the Midwest, whose affinity for hip-hop ran deep, dating back to DJ Quik's debut single, "Born and Raised in Compton." 

Em and Mannion's tag-team expanded to over two continents. Not only did they shoot photos for MMLP in Amsterdam but also Detroit. From the pizza shop that Eminem used to work at to even his old childhood home where he sat on the steps for the album's classic cover art, nothing was off-limits.

READ MORE 20 Years of 'The Marshall Mathers LP': Ranking Every Song From Eminem's Third Album"

It was great," recalls Mannion of the shoot in from of Em's old house. "It was him in his element and delivering his journey. You know, the humble nature of him and his process of getting to be this megastar, which is rooted so clearly in talent. His talent and his relentless drive was it.

"Mannion spoke to Billboard about the 20th anniversary of The Marshall Mathers LP, where the album cover ranks in his collection and Em's dedication to delivering the best shots. 

What does the number 20 mean for you having been involved in the Marshall Mathers LP?

It's really hard to put into words how important this album is for the world, for Eminem (and) for me. There's an endless amount of stories. We shot in Amsterdam and Detroit. Originally, this album was meant to be called Amsterdam. I was like, "We have to go to Amsterdam. We have to all get on a plane and go there. That's the only way we're doing this album." He happened to be performing out there and said, "This is going to sync up perfectly.

"We did a phenomenal session out there -- really poured out hearts into it. Then, I think there was a realization that he wanted to present this trifecta of who he was: Slim Shady, Marshall Mathers and Eminem. This is how genius this guy is. He's thinking farther down the road to be able to craft these versions of himself. Slim Shady was the gimmick to get everyone's attention, which was still rooted in something phenomenal.

Then, he was like, "Let me tell you about my journey. Let me allow myself to be vulnerable within the space and deliver 'me' and how I really got here [with] my struggles, my pain," and I think that's when everybody really connected with him on a different level. It wasn't just this pop phenomenon that he was rooted in reverence for the culture. He obviously felt like he had to prove himself probably more than the next MC just because he was from Detroit and a white boy. He had something to prove and he was clinical on the album, delivering masterpiece after masterpiece.

READ MORE20 Years of 'Stan': How Eminem’s Epic 2000 Hit Relates to the Fan Culture It Inspired

When it was time to dig into who Marshall Mathers was, we had to do another session in Detroit. So we flew to Detroit to kind of continue [the shoot]. It kind of became this nice balance of Amsterdam and all of these lax drugs laws and all of these experimental moments that he was pursuing at that time to kind of ground himself. We shot outside the pizza shop that he used to work at with people that he still knew from there.

I remember you said in a past interview that you shot him in his boxers and trench coat in the freezing cold towards the end of the shoot.

It's dedication. I was with him entirely, pushing and wanting more, but he one-upped me in this session. We did that and I was like, "OK. He's going to be tired." He's in boxer shorts, combat boots and a trench coat being the fullness of the character that he was presenting as this Amsterdam version of Em. He pushed it and I was like, "Man, this is incredible. What we achieved out here was beyond comprehension. I can't wait for when we get back to see the session and go through it."He was like, "Man, I was thinking I want to do one more shot. Can we go back to the hotel? I want to be in my hotel room writing to my daughter." Usually, I'm the one begging rappers to go a little bit farther because I want to give them the world, but it flipped on me. It wasn't begrudgingly that I went there to that place. I was like, "I'm with this. Thank you." It made another really phenomenal image that we got to share with the world because of that effort.

Continue reading the original article by Carl Lamarre at Billboard here.

 

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THE MARSHALL MATHERS LP. Congratulations to @eminem on an absolutely brilliant project that celebrates 20 YEARS today. There were 2 sessions that yielded the campaign around this album, one in Detroit and the other in Amsterdam. It is one of my top 3 covers of all time. Art direction & Photography, @jonathanmannion. Designed with the masterful @morningbreathinc’s own Jason Noto.

A post shared by Jonathan Mannion (@jonathanmannion) on May 23, 2020 at 11:20am PDT

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To get a feel of Mannion's deep love of hip-hop, check out his Spotify playlist of the many legendary artists and their music from the album covers he's shot. "I did a playlist on Spotify based on a random sampling of 65 of my favorite album covers. Pulled 90 tunes that were bonafide bangers and complied a little vibe," Mannion details. Enjoy the vibes!

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